Literary criticism is writing that explores the meaning of works of literature. Among other things, literary criticism analyzes works of literature in terms of their historical and literary context. It can also examine a particular type of literature or compare different works by the same author or works by different authors.
Literary criticism analyzes fiction, poetry, drama and some types of non-fiction by considering key issues such as plot, character, setting, theme, imagery, and voice. Literary criticism may also consider the effectiveness of a work of literature, but it’s important to note that in this context the word “criticism” doesn’t simply mean finding fault with the writing but rather looking at it from a critical or analytical viewpoint in order to understand it better.
It’s also important to note that literary criticism involves more than just summarizing the plot or offering biographical information about the author.
Evaluating Sources of Literary Criticism
If you’re asked to find scholarly sources of literary criticism, you should look for journals that are peer-reviewed. In other words, before articles are accepted for publication in the journal, they’re reviewed by other scholars. Articles in a scholarly journal will also include citations for other works that are referenced. Scholarly books, likewise, will document their sources and are usually written by someone affiliated with a college or university and published by a university press. Sometimes a book of literary criticism is actually a compilation of articles that have previously appeared in journals. If that’s the case, you can try to ascertain the nature of the journal in question.
Even if you know an article has come from a peer-reviewed journal, you may still wonder about its relevance, particularly if the work or author you’re researching is one that’s been studied extensively. One way to get more information about a source is to type the title of the article into Google Scholar and see how many times it’s been cited. The higher the number, the more likely it is that the article is influential—or at least controversial. You can do a similar search to learn more about the reputation of a journal, book, or author.
Finally, when looking for critical work, don’t rely on sources like SparkNotes, which provide help for students but are not considered reputable scholarly sources.
Sources of Literary Criticism
An ideal place to begin your search for literary criticism is the English subject guide on the TAMU libraries’ website: library.tamu.edu/subject-guides/English. We also recommend their handout “Starting Points for Literary Criticism.”
Here are some of the useful links you’ll find on the library website:
ABELL (Annual Bibliography of English Language and Literature): This database includes English-language articles, books, and reviews published since 1920 on English language and literature, traditional culture and bibliography. It also includes unpublished dissertations from the years 1920-1999. It covers English, American and Commonwealth writers.
Academic Search Complete: EBSCO: This online database, a general source for scholarly works in a variety of disciplines, covers works on the literature of all languages. The database covers almost 11,000 publications and offers full text on about 5,000 of those.
Modern Language Association (MLA) International Bibliography: This is a key resource for information on literature, linguistics, and folklore. The database includes more than 4,000 journals in the field, as well as books, collections of essays, dissertations and other bibliographies. It covers work from 1920 to the present. When searching, you can specify the kind of references you want, i.e. books, journals, websites. You can also choose only those listings that link to a full text version of the material. You can also set the search parameters to show you only scholarly (peer reviewed) journals or you can request entries within a certain timeframe, such as only those published after the year 2000.
The TAMU library’s English subject page also links to databases geared to specific time periods (such as Brepolis Medieval Bibliographies) and those pertaining to certain types of literature (such as the Children’s Literature Database).
A few other resources you may want to investigate:
African American Review: This online journal specifically focuses on African American literature and ethnic studies, “[providing] a lively exchange between writers and scholars in the arts, humanities, and social sciences who hold diverse perspectives on African American literature and culture.” The website features full-text online access to back issues.
American Literary Scholarship: This journal offers current critical analysis of American literature. Among the writers discussed are Whitman, Hawthorne, Poe, Melville, Twain, and Faulkner. It is available in print at PS3.A47 or electronically.
A Handbook to Literature: A collection of defined literary terms, movements, and theories, this text is edited by William Harmon and C. Hugh Holman and is easy to use. It is available in print at PN41 .H355 2000.
Literary Research: A Guide to Reference Sources for the Study of Literature in English and Related Topics: This book, published in 1993, is helpful for locating other bibliographies for English and American literature by period. It also provides a list of related topics (music, science, art, etc.) that may also be useful. The book is edited by James Harner and is available in print at Z2011.H34 1993.
The Year’s Work in English Studies: This bibliography lists and assesses the scholarly literary criticism published in a given year. The information is presented according to major literary periods, such as “American Literature to 1900” and can also be searched by author. It can be accessed at: ywes.oxfordjournals.org/